Former Philadelphia Carriage Tours horse Patrick with Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue volunteer Jessica Hunter-Hinsvark. Photo credit Lauren Nation.
For Patrick, Tucker, Freaky Pete and seven other ex-Philadelphia carriage horses, the days of dodging traffic, traveling several miles a day on asphalt and living in an old warehouse are over.
The horses arrived at a sanctuary in Maryland early last month after the owner of one of the city’s remaining two carriage companies agreed to close her doors and give up the horses.
Han Hee Yoo, who operated Philadelphia Carriage Tours, was facing citations and fines related to repeated building code violations and for the substandard stabling conditions for the horses in her care.
After months of negotiations with city officials Yoo agreed to relinquish the horses to the city, which placed them with Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mt Airy, Md., which specializes in rescuing large breed horses from slaughter.
On a recent frigid weekend morning in Maryland, the small herd was finishing breakfast before ambling about two spacious pastures in their winter blankets. The horses who toiled on city streets for years are enjoying the freedom of pasture life so much they are becoming reluctant to return to their stalls at night, said Christine Hajek, founder of Gentle Giants.
“There’s been a lot of running, bucking and partying in the field,” said Hajek, whose rescue cares for 120 horses on 250 acres.
Philadelphia Carriage Company was billed as one of the oldest carriage companies in the country, having operated in Philadelphia for almost 40 years, offering tourists guided tours of the city’s famed Independence Park and surrounding neighborhoods.
Since summer 2017 the company had repeated run-ins with city inspectors for failing to meet minimum standards for horse care. Inspections of the century-old converted warehouse by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspection, along with the Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT) found horses were housed in tie-stalls and unable to lie down, stalls had inadequate and dirty bedding and the building had poor ventilation and rodents. In addition, the old exercise area for the horses was eliminated by a condominium development.
Inspectors also discovered some horses being worked when they were supposed to be resting and recovering from illness.
Officers with the Pennsylvania SPCA had responded to a number of complaints about the carriage company over the years and visited the stables but saw no evidence of animal cruelty under the statute, said Nicole Wilson, the PSPCA’s director of humane law enforcement.
“The citations that were filed were based on code violations involving the structure, the tie stalls and lack of exercise, not criminal acts of cruelty,” she said.
Last fall the city filed an emergency injunction seeking the immediate forfeiture of horses DaVinci, Little Blue and Tucker, and the closure of the business. But there was concern among animal advocates about what would happen to the horses if the city shut down the operation.
That’s when the city turned to Gentle Giants, which has saved hundreds of draft horses from slaughter, including many Amish plow horses, carriage horses and ex-show horses.
Yoo’s lawyer Barry Penn told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Yoo had struggled to care for the horses since her husband died nine years ago.
“I think [the settlement is] a good solution for everybody,” Penn told the newspaper.
Philadelphia carriage companies, like those in New York City and elsewhere have come under increased scrutiny in the last decade. A number of high profile incidents across the country involving horses collapsing or carriages hit by vehicles, have fueled controversy and generated calls by animal welfare advocates to end the carriage trade.
In Philadelphia in 2010 a car hit a carriage near Independence Mall, touching off a chain reaction involving other two other carriages that injured five people and five horses.
In 2012 a woman driver was seriously injured when her horse bolted, flipping the carriage in Center City.
Hajek said it’s important to remember that pulling a carriage itself does not constitute abuse and many breeds of horses are comfortable pulling carriages and wagons for pleasure, tourism or competition with the proper loads and in reasonable weather conditions.
Even in New York City, which has three agencies monitoring its busy carriage horse trade around Central Park, no one has been able to find a resolution that animal advocates, carriage operators and the city can agree upon.
It’s the presence of cars, bicycles and other hazards that make city traffic so dangerous for horses. A dedicated lane with a jersey barrier might be one safer option, Hajek said.
Hajek said when she picked up the ten horses in December (an eleventh horse owned by Yoo was donated to another rescue, Hajek believes) she saw an aging stable in need of considerable renovation, but found the horses in decent health.
All were in the range of normal body weight and had their feet cared for. Some of the stable hands, she said, were tearing up as the horses – nine geldings and a mare – left the stables for the last time.
Now begins the months long process of evaluating the horses before adoption, said Hajek. The rescue, which received no monetary assistance from the city or the stable owner, has already invested about $1,000 per horse for veterinary exams, including blood work, and to have their rear shoes pulled.
Hajek said her goal with the horses - all of whom are in their teens and twenties - is to find family homes where they might be used for light pleasure riding or driving. Unlike many rescues, Gentle Giants tracks its horses for life and will take back horses from adoptions that do not work out.
Any horses deemed not fit for adoption will join her permanent sanctuary herd to live out their lives.
The closure of Philadelphia Carriage Company leaves 76 Carriage Tours, which has had no similar issues with code compliance, as the only carriage company in the city.
Some animal welfare advocates say it’s time to end the carriage trade for good.
“These horses deserve better,' Erin Donnelly, whose group Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages Philly, holds silent protests at Independence Mall, told Metro newspaper. “PETA is calling on the city to show some brotherly love to horses by banning dangerous and cruel horse-drawn carriages entirely and retiring all the animals to sanctuaries, where they'd graze in green pastures and finally be free from grueling labor, dangerous traffic, and dark concrete stalls,” said Marianne Bessey, PETA’s manager of campaigns.
Hajek said she’d like to see more carriage companies develop retirement plans for their animals, something that has long been advocated by those who support race horse aftercare.
“People need to retire horses responsibly,” said Hajek. “They should step up and ensure those who have been injured and can no longer work or who age out have a safe place spend their final years.”
To learn more about Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue, to donate and to see pictures of the carriage horses and other rescues visit the group’s Facebook page.
Amy Worden is a former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the founder of the Philly Dawg animal blog.